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October 29, 2004

Effective theories and gravity

Posted by Robert H.

To rebut fears that having my own blog would let me forget about the coffee table i would like to share some thoughts that I would like to here your comments on. The theme is effective theories and how they fit together with gravity.

As long as we are not entirely sure about the nature of the final theory (I know, string theory is the final theory but let us forget about this for a second) we have to keep an open mind about the fact that all theories that we deal with are only effective theories and that they are obtained by some coarse graining procedure from more fundamental theory. Then the usual renormalization group reasoning tells us that our low energy measurements should be independant of irrelevant deformations of this procedure. Especially, as long as our low energy observational scale is well below the coarse graining scale, low energy physics should be invariant under moving that scale by means of integrating out or in high energy degrees of freedom.

To be a bit more specific about the kinds of models I have in mind let me tell you about a U Chicago exam problem that Gavin Polhemus (the coauthor on my first string theory paper) once told me about:

Find the energies of the lowest energy modes of a particle in a 2d box that has the shape of a highly excentric ellipse!

Say, the particle is confined to x 2 +y 2 /e 2 <1 for small e1 . Then the idea is to realize that the bounces in the y direction are much faster than those in the x direction and are thus at a higher energy scale and can be integrated out.

By that I mean we use the Born Oppenheimer approximation and treat x as a classical constant variable while solving the Schr"odinger equation for y. This is the ordinary particle in the box of size 2 e1 x 2 and this has a zero point energy of

(1)E 0 (x)=1 4 e 2 (1 x 2 ).

The trick is now to interpret E 0 (x) as an effective potential for a one dimensional problem envolving only x.

Note one feature of this integrating out procedure: In the original 2d problem, no matter where in the ellipse the particle is, there is no potential energy, all there is is kinetic energy. However, in the effective 1d theory, suddenly what used to be the kinetic energy of the motion in the y-direction is now interpreted as potential energy of x. This in fact is quite generic of effective theories: Effective potentials often come from kinetic energy in the microscopic theory.

Now you probably wonder why I care, in the end it should not matter what type of energy we have. Well, this is only true as long as we are not dealing with gravity. Gravity appearantly can diffentiate between kinetic and potential energy. One way to see this is to consider the typical cosmology setting of a FRW metric coupled to a scalar field. This problem is again one dimensional as everything (the scale factor and the scalar) only depend on time.

Usually, the Friedmann equations are expressed in terms of the energy density and pressure of a perfect fluid:

(2)aa=4 3 (ρ+3 P)

and we have to specify ρ and P in terms of the properties of the scalar field. It turns out that ρ=T+V and P=TV where T is the kinetic and V is the potential energy of the scalar field. Thus P and therefore the evolution of a depend on how the energy is distributed between kinetic and potential energy.

Now imagine that we coupled the above QM system to gravity: We consider two scalar fields X and Y that are free except that they are confined to X 2 +Y 2 /e 2 <1 . Then I would expect one evolution corresponding to pure kinetic energy. Alternatively I would integrate out Y and obtain a different cosmology with partly kinetic and partly potential energy. In terms of an equation of state this the first one would be w=P/ρ=1 whereas the second would be roughly w=0 .

Please find the flaw in this argument, otherwise I would conclude that dealing with effective theories is not save in a gravitational setting!!!

There are two related issues: First of all, strictly speaking, the effective potential is only defined up to an additive constant. But we know we are not supposed to fiddle with that as that would be a cosmological constant and gravity definitely depends on that.

The other issue is less related but still makes me a bit uneasy: There are all kinds of gravitational entropy bounds on the marked that all roughly say that the entropy of an object is bounded by S=A/4 , where A is the horizon area the black hole you could turn this object into. The reason I am uneasy with these bounds is that in thermodynamics we usually deal only with differences of entropy and only in a quantum treatment you adopt the convention of setting the entropy of the ground state to 0. This corresponds to a normalization of the partition function and of course only holds if the ground state is non-degenerate.

However, what you call the ground state depends on you level of course graining! For example, in the past I worked on protein folding. There the typical question is, given some sequence of amino acids, what is the ground state? We often joked that the ground state of a protein is some H 2 O and CO 2 , but that was wrong: You can still gain some energy by nuclear processes that turn the protein into a lump of iron.

Obviously, what this joke plays with is that bio-physicists use a different coarse graining thant chemists (they assume molecular bounds are inert) that use a different coarse graining than nuclear physicists (as they treat chemical elements as inert). The upshot is that what looks like a ground state in one coarse graining might actually be composed of many micro states in a more microscopic theory. Thus the biophysicist would assign entropy 0 to the protein in the ground state whereas the chemist would assigne a positive entropy to it and the nuclear physicist would assign an even bigger entropy to it. A string theorist might even find more stringy degrees of freedom and would assign an even bigger entroby to it. And hey, maybe also string theory is only an effective theory and there is an even more microscopic theory behind it that would know about even more microstates!

Well, thanks to Beckenstein, we don’t have to worry about this, we can meassure it: We just throw the protein into a black hole and measure how the horizon area increases. This you can translate into an upper bound of the entropy of the protein and this in turn tells you that you cannot infinitely find more fundamental theories with more and more degrees of freedom. Thus you can for example measure if there is room for a more fundamental theory than string theory! Isn’t that great? And all this only envolves low energy physics: You just have to slowly lower a protein into a black hole.

You think I am joking? Well, have a look at papers like this. Here, Andreas derives bounds on the quotient of viscosity and entropy density from holographic arguments. And he even finds that actual fluids (as found in the CRC) are only one order of magnitude away from the bound! But this should make you wonder how the absolute entropy in those tables is defined. And indeed, the tables assume that the chemical composition is kept fixed when the entropy is extrapolated to zero temperature. But we just found that from a nuclear perspective the entropy should be bigger because we have to count nuclear degrees of freedom as well. Hmm.

Please help, I’m worried.

Posted at October 29, 2004 1:35 PM UTC

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Re: Effective theories and gravity

I have little time right now, but here is a quick comment:

I suspect that the apparent paradox will disappear once the steps you sketched are written out in detail. I for one am not sure that I follow the details of the conceptual identifications that you made above. So let’s see:

Are we talking about a system of gravity coupled to two scalar fields with the Lagrangian given by

(1)L=g(R(Φ 1 ) 2 (Φ 2 ) 2 V(ϕ 1 ,ϕ 2 ))


(2)V(x,y)={0 , forx 2 +y 2 /e 2 <1 V 0 1 , otherwise


Posted by: Urs Schreiber on October 29, 2004 5:29 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: Effective theories and gravity

That’s what I meant. If you worry that this potential is not continious, take any other potential with similar properties, like X 2 Y 2 for example. For the Born Oppenheime treatment, see for example this old paper.

Posted by: Robert on October 29, 2004 6:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Effective theories and gravity

I don’t have the time to look at that paper right now. Later.

I assume we next want to look at homogeneous cosmological solutions of the above mentioned system.

I feel with the problem that you have in mind it is maybe good not to switch to a description in terms of ρ and p right from the beginning.

When I insert the metric

(1)ds 2 =N 2 (t)dtdt+e 2 α(t)δ ijdx idx j,

into our action and assume fields to be independent of the x i and integrating these out the remaining action reads

(2)S=dte 3 α(1 N(α˙ 2 + i(ϕ i)˙ 2 )NV(ϕ 1 ,ϕ 2 ))

and hence the dynamical equation is

(3)α˙ 2 + i(ϕ i)˙ 2 +V(ϕ 1 ,ϕ 2 )=0 .

To me this equation seems to be the right context to study your question.

Perhaps we want to quantize this equation to something like

(4)( α 2 i (ϕ i) 2 +V)ψ=0 .

Then we could find ψ such that

(5)( (ϕ 2 ) 2 +V(ϕ 1 ,ϕ 2 ))ψE 0 (ϕ 1 )ψ

and get

(6)( α 2 (ϕ 1 ) 2 +E 0 (ϕ 1 )+V)ψ=0

or something like that (some discussion of boundary conditions would make this more precise).

This seems to tell me that there is no paradox related to kinetic energy becoming potential energy when we write it out in detail.

But maybe this is too simplistic. Let me know if this addresses your question.

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on October 29, 2004 7:58 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: Effective theories and gravity


I tend to agree that there should not be a problem in the end, its just if I plug together things as people usually do (cosmologists for example) that I seem to get strange results.

Of course, working in the microscopic theory all the way to the end is the ‘correct’ procedure. But the question was if one is allowed to take the short-cut via an effective theory.

Finally, I should warn you that what you do is not correct! You must never plug in an ansatz into a Lagrangian and then vary the parameters of the ansatz. This leads to incorrect equations of motion. You have to first work out the eom’s and that plug in your ansatz and then test if your ansatz is correct. Gary Gibbons and Chris Pope have been emphasising this a lot, see for example this paper.

Their standard example is to make a KK-Ansatz for gravity but to forget about the dilaton and to set it to 1. If you plug in this ansatz into the Lagrangian you get nice equations for lower dimensional gravity and the gauge field except they are wrong. You can see this as the fieldstrength of the gauge field sources the dilaton and it is thus not consitent to set it to 0.

At least in your case, you lack a dampting term for the scalar: There should be a term with one time derivative with the Hubble constant as coefficient.


Posted by: Robert on November 1, 2004 10:00 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Effective theories and gravity

You are right, that was too simple minded and is indeed missing the corrects eom’s. So express ρ and p in terms of ϕ and write down the correct equations of motion for the system and then make some ‘effective’ approximation. I’d like to see if you still run into a problem concerning the difference between kinetic and potential energy.

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on November 2, 2004 9:12 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: Effective theories and gravity

Let me state an assumption as fact for a moment. There are only three dimensions by definition.
QUESTION: How does the Universe exist mathmatically and relate Gravity, space, and time with quantum mechanics.
ANSWER: A missed understanding of a missed process.
Mass decays into the gravitational wave producting the actions of TIME (the cosmological rate of three dimensional mass to two dimensional gravitational energy transfer), SPACE (the lowest form of mass- the Grativational wave), and Gravitational wave synchronization ( the process by which gravitational waves align bringing the three dimenaional masses togther) - GRAVITY
Sincerely C. Michael Turner

Posted by: michael turner on January 8, 2005 5:01 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Effective theories and gravity

It seems interesting to me that all of the accepted theories of gravity never explain logically, the fact that the universe is accelerating. Many thoughts try to explain that at great distances gravity becomes a repelling force. That explanation in fact seems to defy logic.

But what if Gravity is always a repelling force? What if the pull of Gravity is just an illusion? What if there is pressure exerted by dark matter in all directions and the Gravity we perceive is just a shading effect from massive objects, such as the sun, the earth and the moon? This would also explain the acceleration of the universe… since the pressure is pushing out and nothing beyond the objects at the edge of the universe is pushing back.

This would explain the observed attraction of matter without some mysterious attractive power that reverses polarity and some great distance, which seems ridiculous to logical thinking.

I know a lot of people have been working on these grand theories much longer than I have existed in this lifetime, but why isn’t anyone “BIG” perusing this type of theory of gravity? It sure would explain a lot without having to insert illogical sounding hypothesis.

Just something to think about…


P.S. I’m very interested in gravity. It has always seemed to me very unexplained. Any comments to me would be appreciated. E-mail :

Posted by: Steve Foster on December 27, 2006 10:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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